Fascinated by Catherine McKinnon’s “Storyland”

Or rather, by the review I read in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland opens with Lieutenant Matthew Flinders and George Bass as they set out on a fair day in March 1796 to explore the white, uncharted  land south of Sydney Cove.

The nine day sea voyage in the Tom Thumb begins ominously with the spoiling of the boat’s water that sets the intrepid explorers off in search of fresh supplies.

On their second shore landing, the explorers are welcomed by two Indigenous men, one of whom is known as Dilba, a man ”born of the earth itself”, who trades them fish and fresh water for two potatoes and a handkerchief.

It’s the first of a series of meetings in which Flinders is trusted enough to cut off the men’s beards with scissors, before confusion reigns and a warning shot is fired and the nascent goodwill between nations evaporates in musket smoke…

See also ‘Fascinating’ Lake Illawarra inspires author’s new book (2013).

The beauty of Lake Illawarra inspired Eugene Von Guerard to paint it in 1860, and now the saltwater lake has inspired Jamberoo author and playwright Catherine McKinnon.

Her second novel, Storyland, is set on the banks of Lake Illawarra and spans four centuries. The web connecting the five storylines is the lake’s natural environment, including the abundant wildlife. McKinnon weaves together her stories up to a climatic event – starting in the present, travelling into the future and skipping back to the past.

Von Guerard’s painting shows much of the lake’s surrounds stripped of their cedar and used for farmland almost 80 years after settlement.

McKinnon’s work stretches back even further, to Matthew Flinders’ exploration of the area in 1796. His account of that journey is the only historical record of the first encounter with the area’s Wadi Wadi people.

In researching the book, McKinnon explores the validity of Flinders’ two accounts of the journey and examines the influences and pressures he may have felt in writing them.

Flinders describes how they struggled to find fresh drinking water, had difficulty landing the boat and traded goods with two Koori men, who guided the explorers to Canoe Rivulet, a stream off Lake Illawarra, where they met with more locals. At some point Flinders believed the Kooris began to act suspiciously. Fearing for his life, he decided to use deceit to retreat back to the boat.

In Storyland, McKinnon challenges Flinders’ accounts by offering an alternative, imaginary perspective, from the point of view of an English servant, taking the reader on the same journey as they sailed up Lake Illawarra in the small boat, the Tom Thumb, through to Canoe Rivulet.

‘‘The book is partly based on real, historical events and part imagination,’’ explains McKinnon….

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Bass And Flinders In The “Tom Thumb”, c1930s. Colour lithograph. Pritchard.

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See my 2013 post Tom Thumb Lagoon. There is also a PDF file of an authoritative local  history available from the University of Wollongong: W.G. McDonald, (1975), The First Footers – Bass and Flinders in Illawarra.

In a moment of aberration Meehan in 1816 identified Tom Thumb’s Lagoon with the lagoon between Throsby’s stockman’s hut (near Brighton Beach at Wollongong) and Red Point, and the name stuck until “ the Thumb” was converted into Port Kembla Inner Harbour. Then, to conform with this, Allan Cunningham identified Hat Hill with Mount Keira, and labelled Mount Kembla Cap Hill or Molle Hill, making a molehill out of a mountain, and confusion worse confounded. These identifications are quite untenable; so are the theories which identify Tom Thumb’s Lagoon with Coomaditchy and with Little Lake at Warilla. Tom Thumb’s Lagoon can only be Lake Illawarra, and Canoe River its entrance; and there is a scintilla of  evidence that the blacks were shorn on the southern rather than on the northern side. Oddly Flinders makes no mention of Windang Island, which is such a striking feature of the entrance – the one piece of solid land in miles of sand. The map shows a hammer-headed peninsula on the south side to the entrance, which presumably represents Windang Island joined to the mainland by a sandspit, as it often is. Whether the channel is to the north or south of the island, or both, depends on the vagaries of wind and tide. Hat Hill is said by Flinders to be five miles W.N.W. from Red Point. He was over a mile short in his estimate of the distance, but the bearing is dead right for Mount K embla. For Mount Keira the bearing is wrong, and the discrepancy in distance even greater. The adventurers spent a third uncomfortable night in the boat, under the lee of the inner of the two northern islands, which they called Martin’s Isles

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Percy Lindsay’s 1925 watercolour of the story While the Powder Dried, which was used to illustrate the story of how Bass and Flinders diverted the attention of Aboriginals at Lake Illawarra by cutting their hair.

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